There is a lot more to sexual hormones than estrogen and testosterone. Diminished libido can often be traced to the effects that stress has on our often overlooked adrenal glands: job stress, spouse stress, toxin stress, and lack of sleep all affect our love life. Lifestyle changes and nutritional support can restore our desire to heights many have thought they could no longer attain.
When we think of sex hormones, we generally think about the ovaries, where women make estrogens and progesterone, and the testes, where men make testosterone. But the adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney, can play a substantial role in our sexuality.
The adrenal gland is composed of two main parts: the cortex and the medulla. The cortex is the outside part, and produces many steroid hormones that regulate our blood sugar and fluid balance. This is also where women make their DHEA and testosterone.
Although it is a relatively small amount of testosterone compared to men, it is still a very significant factor in the female libido. When the adrenal cortex is stressed out in women, it may reduce their sexual desire. The medulla, the inside part of the adrenal gland, makes adrenaline, which gives us that uncomfortable fight-or-flight response, sweaty palms, knot in the stomach, feelings of fearfulness and anxiety, insomnia, and, in more extreme cases, racing heart and panic. For this reason, the adrenal is also known as the stress gland.
Stress researcher Hans Selye, M.D., taught us that all stresses affect the adrenal gland. Whether it is stress caused by our spouse, children, parents, work, heavy metals, parasites, poor diet, lack of sleep, pain, chronic illness, or any other cause you can think of, they all work on the adrenal gland.
The usual job of the adrenal cortex is to maintain blood sugar by storing glycogen (sugars in a long chain) in the liver. When we are stressed we use up all our adrenal reserves, and our blood sugar begins to drop. The brain registers this drop in blood sugar and signals to the adrenal medulla to start pouring out adrenaline into the bloodstream. This adrenaline mobilizes fat and takes it to the liver to be converted into blood sugar. This is all well and good. The blood sugar comes back up and our body doesn’t die–but now we are flooded with adrenaline. This happens to many people in the middle of the night. You might have experienced it yourself: you wake up with a start with lots of energy and begin reviewing your life history or the recent stressful events of the day.
The adrenals are a big deal in many people’s sex lives. People usually feel sexier on vacation when the stress level is down. They can relax and also make up their sleep deficit. Many couples complain that they are just too tired to be interested in sex. A great rule for rebuilding the adrenals: “rest is the best.” One can guarantee that if one spouse is feeling fearful and anxious, he or she is definitely not feeling very sexy.
Stress can likewise affect the man who has just had prostate surgery or is taking medication that interferes with his erection. He worries about it, the adrenaline pours out, and the anxiety about his performance further dismantles his sexual response.
Stress about one’s appearance can also affect sexuality. Being overweight is a factor influenced by the adrenal gland. People who can’t mobilize their fat to make energy always have a depleted adrenal gland. Your adrenal cortex must be healthy in order to turn fat into blood sugar. When the adrenals are stressed and the fat begins to accumulate, people turn to sugar and carbohydrates to get some energy. When eating carbohydrates, the insulin comes out of the pancreas and stores all the calories as fat and the vicious cycle begins.
So how can we maintain healthy adrenal glands and ensure our optimal sexual life? Begin by doing everything you can do to reduce stress. Resolve conflicts in your relationships, enjoy your work, stay positive in the midst of a negative world, help others, keep up a spiritual life with prayer and meditation, and, very importantly, understand how to supplement your diet with nutrients and hormonal support.
Health-oriented physicians should have a broad range of tools to support the adrenal gland. Start with some basic principles. Use additive-free sea salt. Heresy? Not really. Unless you are very sick and in the end stages of congestive heart failure with swollen ankles and shortness of breath, even people with high blood pressure can take some salt without much problem, according to the National Institutes of Health. Salt levels in the body are controlled by the adrenal glands, and if you don’t take in any salt, the adrenal has to work a lot harder to hold the salt in the body. Strange as it sounds, adequate salt intakes mean healthy blood sugar levels.
All of the adrenal hormones, and all the sex hormones for that matter, are steroids. Steroids are made from cholesterol. You need good sources of cholesterol. Forget the margarine and only eat butter. Keep up a good protein intake, which will also provide good sources of cholesterol. Remember what Dr. Robert Atkins and many others have told us: it is a high-carbohydrate diet that produces high cholesterol, not a high-cholesterol diet.
In addition to basic diet considerations, supplementation is extremely important to keep our adrenal glands healthy in the face of the enormous stress most of us face in our daily lives. The highest concentration of vitamin C in the human body is in the adrenal cortex. I recommend patients take 3,000 mg to 5,000 mg before bed. And patients under extreme stress can take many times this much without getting diarrhea. But don’t expect to be able to take this much vitamin C if you use a cheap product. Lower-quality ascorbic acid is very acidic and upsetting to the stomach and intestines, producing gas and diarrhea at much lower dosages. It is much better to take buffered vitamin C, which is much less acidic and easier on the system.
Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) is very important in adrenal health. I advise people to take 500 mg or more, two or three times per day. It is great for energy, allergy, colds and flu, and sexuality.
Adrenal extracts from the health food store can be very helpful. Tablets of adrenal cortex from your physician give great energy and are not too stimulating. Whole adrenal tablets really help energy levels but should not be taken too late in the day if there is a problem with sleep.
DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a major adrenal cortex hormone that declines with age; when supplemented, it improves energy and Libido. Pregnenolone is another adrenal hormone available over-the-counter, and helps mood, energy, memory, vision, and hearing. Androstenedione is a direct precursor of testosterone in the adrenals, and, although short-lived, can have a salutary effect on sexuality.
For people with more impaired adrenals, your preventive medicine doctor should have a range of adrenal supportive and replacement suggestions, including homeopathics, amino acids, herbals, and hormonal support. It is much better to balance your stress with lifestyle and supplementation strategies than to let it tear down your adrenals and impair sexuality.
And remember: Always check with your health care provider before beginning any course of treatment.
1. Hornsby PJ, Harris, Sandra E. and Alern, Kathy A. The Role of Ascorbic Acid in the Function of the Adrenal Cortex: Studies in Adrenocortical Cells in Culture. Endocrinol. 1985.
2. Jeffries WM. Safe Uses of Cortisol. Second ed. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher Ltd., 1996
3. Wilson, James L. Adrenal Fatigue The 21st Century Stress Syndrome. Smart Publications, 2007
For more info, call Gerber Medical Clinic at (775) 826-1900.